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For months, the word has gone unspoken in the O.J. Simpson trial - the racial epithet so offensive that it is usually referred to in court only as "the n-word."

Now the word, which Detective Mark Fuhrman denied using during the past decade toward blacks, is about to surface in court on a series of audiotapes which legal analysts expect to turn the tide for Simpson.Some go so far as to predict the "n-word" - nigger - could translate into the "a-word" - acquittal.

"I think it will be the most important defense evidence," said University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.

"This material, in tandem with the recent scientific testimony, could actually produce an acquittal for O.J. Simpson without his having to take the stand," added Southwestern University law professor Robert Pugsley.

Legal issues, including admissibility, remain to be resolved. But the appearance of the tapes seven months into testimony has all the earmarks of a Perry Mason twist in Simpson's lengthy murder trial.

The defense discovered them as the result of an anonymous tip from someone who knew that a screenwriting professor in North Carolina had interviewed a number of Los Angeles police officers for a script she was writing on tensions within the department.

Laura Hart McKinny refused to turn over the tapes voluntarily, but after a cross-country legal battle an appeals court last week ordered their disclosure and ruled that McKinny must testify.

Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr., who heard a sampling of the tapes, called them "chilling."

Cochran and his colleagues have argued from the outset that Fuhrman's deep hatred for blacks motivated him to frame Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

It was Fuhrman who reported finding a bloodstained glove on a path behind Simpson's house hours after the June 12, 1994, slayings.

Fuhrman testified that he had not spoken the offensive epithet in the past 10 years, in this exchange with defense attorney F. Lee Bailey:

"And you say under oath that you have not addressed any black person as a nigger or spoken about black people as niggers in the past 10 years, Detective Fuhrman?" Bailey asked.

"That's what I'm saying, sir," Fuhrman replied.

The McKinny tapes, made between 1985 and 1994, purportedly include Fuhrman's voice saying that word 27 times. Fuhrman's lawyer has said the detective was acting in the role of consultant on a fictional work and was not speaking for himself.

The prosecution mounted a bitter battle at the beginning of the trial to exclude the word entirely, Chemerinsky noted, and prosecutor Chris "Darden himself thought that allowing testimony as to epithets could be decisive."

The prosecutor argued that black jurors would be so inflamed by the word that it could cloud their judgment of charges against Simpson. Currently, nine of the 12 jurors are black.

But before jurors can hear any of the tapes, Superior Court Judge Lance Ito must rule if they are admissible.

"I expect prosecutors to argue that even if Fuhrman used the racial slur ... the inflammatory impact outweighs any benefit it would provide the jurors in evaluating the evidence," Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said.

"It probably will be the most pivotal decision the judge will have had to make in the entire case," Pugsley said. "I do predict he will allow this material in, and I think it will blow the case apart."

"Given the racial composition of this jury," Levenson said, "if these jurors feel a Los Angeles Police Department officer is a racist, then they might feel that other officers are, too, and disregard the entire prosecution case."

But she added it's also possible jurors will say: "All right, Mark Fuhrman may be a racist, maybe he even planted a piece of evidence, but that doesn't really account for all the evidence in the case."

"I think it would be a serious blow, but not one that wipes out the rest of their evidence," Levenson said.

While attorneys were having the tapes transcribed, Ito scheduled other testimony. Fredric Rieders, a defense microbiologist whose testimony was interrupted by scheduling problems, returns to the stand to conclude his opinions on whether a blood preservative may have shown up in evidence, supporting a defense evidence-tampering theory.

Defense attorneys also planned to seek testimony from two reporters and the police crime lab chief about news leaks that preceded the trial. The judge ruled the journalists can't be asked to reveal their sources but can describe the information they reported.